Eagle Mountain • During a visit to Utah, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called Thursday for Congress, not his agency, to write “net neutrality” rules regulating businesses that connect consumers to the internet.
That comes after the FCC earlier this year created controversy by dismantling Obama-era rules that had banned broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher quality service or certain content. It also stopped regulating high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility.
“We need Congress to set the rules of the digital road,” Pai said, standing with Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, who made a similar call. Their public comments came after the pair met privately with Utah rural internet providers as part of an FCC outreach on how to extend and improve their services.
“It has been 22 years since Congress spoke on the issue of how the internet should be construed,” he told reporters. “Twenty-two years is a long time, especially in an area as dynamic as the internet.”
Pai said if Congress would give some permanency to rules, it would provide “the certainty we need to move forward with some of the bipartisan initiatives that we all agree on: [improving] rural broadband and promoting digital opportunities” where they now do not exist.
Love, who is in a tight race against Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said deciding rules for net neutrality “should not be in the hands of just bureaucrats” as she smiled and grabbed Pai’s arm. “Anything that is going to be permanent and is going to work for us should be done legislatively.”
She said, “I do oppose blocking, throttling of internet [access]. ... We should make sure people have as much access as possible.”
But she was a bit murky about how to get to that point, whether the country should return to Obama-era tight regulation of broadband to ensure all content providers are treated the same, or continuing to remove regulation that Pai says will handle problems through innovation, increased competition and consumer choice.
Love declined to say what she thought of FCC actions this year, saying it really didn’t matter because Congress should be the one to make permanent decisions. “I care more about what the legislation looks like. We should be driving what the FCC is doing, not the other way around.”
Love said she supports “net neutrality legislatively through Congress” but said she isn’t yet ready to talk about the specifics that such legislation should include.
“I am less specific until I get the information that I need from the people who have a vested interest here in Utah, and what the legislation should look like,” and said the roundtable she and Pai held Thursday with internet providers helps that effort.
Pai, meanwhile, defended his agency’s actions, after he was appointed by President Donald Trump, to remove regulation of internet providers.
“I think we’re freeing up the internet. Freeing up the internet is what we had from 1996 with the commercialization of the internet and starting with President Clinton’s historic decision to make sure we had a light-touch market-based approach to the internet all the way through 2015,” when the FCC started to more tightly regulate it.
“Going forward, we continue to favor a free and open internet with this light-touch approach,” with few rules that include requiring internet providers to disclose business practices, and allowing the Federal Trade Commission to target firms that “behave in an uncompetitive way.”
Pai came to Utah after being chided in a U.S. Senate hearing last week for misleading lawmakers and the public when he had first reported that his agency’s website had crashed recently because of a cyberattack, when it actually was caused by heavy traffic from people complaining about its actions on net neutrality.
He told the Senate Commerce Committee he initially relied on information from the agency’s then-chief information officer, even though he suspected it was incorrect. Pai said he did not update the public because he was asked by the agency’s inspector general not to make any comments as that office investigated.
The inspector general released a report this month saying the problem was caused by a rush of incoming web traffic after comedian John Oliver urged his audience of the HBO show “Last Week Tonight” to complain to the FCC about its net neutrality actions.
Pai will also spend Friday in Utah, when he and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, plan to hold a private roundtable with Utah broadcasters.